By Ernesto Nodado III

When a glimpse of a heartbreaking Finals loss from their Katipunan rivals flashed before them, Ange Kouame and company proved their metal stronger this time.

Ateneo Blue Eagles clawed their way back to reclaim their UAAP crown after weathering the UP Fighting Maroons' second-half surge, 75-68, in the winner-takes-all Game 3 of the Season 85 Men’s Basketball Finals at the Big Dome, Monday evening. 

Photo Courtesy of PTV Sports

With UP staging another Game 3 comeback after a gutsy 18-4 run, Kouame led the way by creating shots in the inside and forcing Carl Tamayo on tough sets to spoil the defending champs' potential comeback.

The Gilas naturalized center polished off his cemented collegiate career with a Finals MVP award as he registered a double-double performance of 19 points and 12 rebounds, while denying four shots as well.

"It was really tough when you’re in the inside game, you try to overcome that,” said Kouame in the on-court interview.

Gab Gomez provided additional arsenal from deep for Ateneo with 12 markers on 3-of-6 three-point shooting, while team captain BJ Andrade put up 10 points on his final game, including two game-sealing free throws.

Ateneo clinched its fourth title in the last five seasons of the UAAP, with only last season snatched away by UP in a historic fashion.

Thirsty for vengeance, the Blue Eagles spared no time with a 9-0 run while scrutinizing the Maroons with zone defense before zooming into a sizable 30-14 lead by the first canto. 

Ateneo capitalized their momentum from the bay, ballooning their lead into the third frame with a 20-point spree after an inside cut to Sean Quinteves, 52-32.

However, UP regained their lost footing as they went on a 18-4 spurt, thanks to Henry Galinato’s inside presence and James Spencer’s perimeter shots, going into the last quarter down by eight, 60-52.

The redemption-seeking Ateneo held on to their lead during crunch time, with Kouame’s putback layup and a bonus charity widening the gap at 1:48, 70-62, while also denying crucial shots from Tamayo.

Pouring a last-ditch effort, Harold Alarcon made a thrilling three-pointer after an intentionally missed free throw to cut the lead to three with 20.1 ticks left, 70-67, but Andrade drained two free throws to seal his school’s twelfth title. 

With their injured co-team captain Zav Lucero out for his last game, UP fought gallantly until the very end, with Spencer leading the way with 14 points while Alarcon and Galinato adding 12 apiece.

The Maroons’ scoring big Tamayo failed to deliver their back-to-back championship with a cold-shooting 11 points while Season’s MVP Malick Diouf only scored 7.

Edited by Diana Mae Salonoy